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Getting Us Used to Troops on the Street

June 5, 2020

lincoln memorial

Were you shocked by the images this week of active duty US soldiers, military vehicles, and Blackhawk helicopters on the streets of Washington, DC? That was in addition to National Guard troops imported from states as far away as Florida. And federal law enforcement personnel in full riot gear assembled by William Barr’s Department of Justice probably from agencies such as the Border Patrol and the Bureau of Prisons and others who wore no identifying insignia or name tags and refused to state which agency they worked for.

What is all this fascist repressive display about? As in many other cities, there had been large demonstrations sparked by the murder of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis. And there had been a relatively small amount of vandalism and arson (nowhere near as much as in Minneapolis or even New York City, where no military troops were requested or sent). The mayor of Washington, DC, Muriel Bowser, did not request the troop presence, and indeed had to resist federalization of Washington’s Metropolitan Police Department which was quite capable of controlling both the mostly peaceful protesters as well as a small number of provocateurs trying to exploit the situation. In DC, there was no “rioting” or “orgy of violence” that Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton hyperventilated about in a New York Times op-ed. DC has seen rioting before, and this most definitely wasn’t that.

Indeed, the most violent incident to date was when the massed military and police forces which earlier had barricaded protesters from Lafayette Park, across Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House, with no warning used mounted police, tear gas, and rubber bullets to rout a very peaceful crowd from H Street on the north side of the park. This unprovoked action was to clear the way for Trump and a gaggle of minions, including Defense Secretary Esper and Joint Chief Chairman General Milley (wearing BDU), to troop across the park between lines of gun-toting military police to stand outside St. John’s Episcopal Church for a moronic photo op with a Bible.

lafayette park

Because of the District of Columbia’s peculiar status, it is almost powerless to resist having its limited and always-precarious autonomy snatched away whenever a president or Congress gets the urge. DC has no votes in Congress, and as the NY Times noted, its mayor “could face consequences for protesting too loudly, unlike other mayors around the country who may be angered by the president’s posture toward protesters. Mr. Trump has not yet invoked his strongest lever of power over the city, an obscure provision allowing him to take control of the District’s police force in an emergency. But the White House floated the threat this week.”

So DC becomes the test case for this administration to see just how much it can get away with in using the military and police from federal agencies for political purposes, because DC can’t say no. The administration has established an armed perimeter extending beyond the White House grounds that almost calls to mind the notorious “Green Zone” around the US Embassy in Baghdad. It has sent columns of APCs rumbling down DC streets and deployed low-flying military helicopters using “show of force” tactics that use the prop wash to hurl snapped tree branches and other debris at protesters on the street.

The strategy seems to be to get the public accustomed to seeing military or militarized elements used for domestic policing, and with its high media visibility and unmatched iconography of its monuments and buildings, DC is the perfect place for that. If we become okay with seeing that kind of thing in Washington, DC, then why not in LA, Chicago, or New York? Yes, there are some annoying legal issues there, but this administration has never had a problem with flouting those and daring the courts or Congress to do something about it. Besides, local police forces have become so militarized that it’s often hard to distinguish them from special US Army units, so would we even know?

What is the end game here? The odd thing is that the protests were not focused on Trump until Trump made them focus on him. Is this just a ploy to get the “law and order” vote by trying to look tough and macho, or preparations for something more sinister–like maybe the election? This isn’t just a figment of my own fevered imagination. There are serious scenario planners among both Democrats and (anti-Trump) Republicans who are looking at these possibilities. What if Trump tries to cancel or postpone elections, or declare a state of emergency in key states to suppress certain voters? What if Trump loses but declares the election was rigged and won’t leave office? After all, he declared a national state of emergency to send US military units to the Mexican border and get funds for The Wall, and he has mused out loud about not accepting electoral defeat. He already has the Department of Justice in his pocket. He refers to cops as “my people.” What if the military stood with him? Whose orders would US military units obey?

It’s encouraging that a number of retired top-ranking military officers, including Trump’s former Secretary of Defense and chief of staff, have spoken out against politicizing the military. Esper has vacillated between going along with Trump and seeming to distance himself, and seems torn between loyalty and principle. What the current military leadership are saying among themselves remains unsure.

But make no mistake, if the American military forces become a partisan political tool, it’s game over for democracy in this country. We must not get used to this!

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